Eithne Cullen was born in Dublin; her family moved to London when she was six years old. She has taught in East London secondary schools for 37 years. An avid reader, Eithne takes great pleasure from her reading group which encourages an eclectic mix of books. She likes to write stories and poems and belongs to two writing groups, Forest Poets and Write Next Door. She lives with her husband in East London, is unashamedly proud of her three grown up children and endeavours to embarrass them as often as she can.
Growing up in North East London, I’d often pass Holloway Prison on the bus or in a car. The gates are so recognisable and familiar in film and TV – they represent the huge metal doors that signify someone is either going in or coming out of jail. I was aware that executions had taken place there.
Over the years I heard different things about the prison, how it was extended and populated. I remember reading articles about the levels of self-harm among the women and how pregnant women were treated. I read about some of the interesting (dangerous) women who’d been held there, till the end of their lives, in some cases.
Then, Michael Gove announced that the building was to be sold off and I imagined it being turned into some kind of desirable flats. My story came together as a monologue of the prison, as her inmates would slop out and be slopped out for the last time…
Gove wants to close my doors for good and Osborne’s already speaking with the developers. They’ll be the desirable kinds of dwellings for blow ins, beardies and hipsters of all sorts. They’ll boast over their craft beers how they live in the old Holloway Prison and laugh about its ambience and access to hip bars, ‘close to Camden’… ‘handy for the tube’.
They’ve written songs about me, sung them loud. I’ve had films and stories made here. I am the butt of many jokes: Mrs Slocombe’s eyelashes were compared to my prison bars. A sci-fi series named a character after me. In one story, Sherlock Holmes spent some time within my walls.
But I’ll shut my doors for the last time with that hollow resounding clank we’ve come to know so well.
I’ll watch the uniformed officers draw their pay for the last time and move on. In their ears the sound of ‘screw’ hurled abusively – the final insult. I’ll watch the rumbling traffic, as I’ve done for years, its volume growing from horse drawn carriages and hackney cabs through to lumbering lorries and white vans in their droves. I’ll see the people changing as they’ve done for years, from pinched and under-nourished waifs to obese youngsters in designer sports wear, taller each year. My gaze fell only on white faces at the start but now I watch people of every coloured skin and every kind of garb.
Most of all I’ll watch the women leaving: the sad, the bad and the downright dangerous. Their presence has been my being, my purpose and my life. I have grown to give them shelter, I have expanded to keep them off the streets and I have accommodated them and their crimes for many, many years. It’s where you left your mad, your crazed, your dim; your shining celebrity murderers; hunger strikers; serial killers; the poisoners and baby killers; the dangerous ones who stole to feed their children, sold their bodies and sucked cocks in cars to buy shoes for them to go to school; the ones who took beatings at the hands of men but were punished for acts of revenge.
I witnessed doctors force food through tubes into the throats of women who wanted to vote. Saw women giving birth while under close surveillance of police officers, some handcuffed to the bed. I heard the shrill screaming as their babies were taken from them. I have seen the blood fall on my scrubbed floors as women cut themselves to see if they could feel.
Myra Hindley, who tried to escape, was one of my most notorious inmates; she got her warden-lover to help, but they failed. The story is quite true, she wore a wig in chapel to have her passport photo done and made an impression of a key in a pink bar of Camay soap. She was taken off elsewhere and there was no shortage of treacherous women to follow in her wake, like Rose West who was convicted of ten murders. She’s gone now.
When they put up new buildings (forty-something years ago) they took five corpses from my ground and moved them to new graves. The bodies of the executed: that had been my job, when Newgate closed and no longer saw the condemned to their end. That’s when they gave me a gallows, at the end of B wing, the lights on all the day and night. The wooden beams a permanent structure, always ready; where two could hang side by side.
Those gallows saw five lives off. Such very different leavings, that’s for sure! My first: a pair of killers who poisoned little infants in their care. Their home was stuffed with baby clothes but no babes. The ‘Finchley Baby Farmers’ they were called. One of these was a woman who may have been a cool criminal in her time but Pierrepoint carried her screaming to the scaffold. Not like the hooded woman beside her in that double hanging; cool as a cucumber, she bid her accomplice ‘goodbye’ as she dropped.
Many remember my capital victim number three; her name was Edith, though she’d been called a ‘scarlet woman’ many times instead. She was no killer but she was dangerous beyond belief. She’d incited her young lover to kill old Percy, her husband. They used her letters in the court and learned how she’d crushed a light bulb and put it in his mash, though it was her lover’s knife that saw him off. She hanged within my walls and her eighteen year-old accomplice was executed at the same time down the road at Pentonville – among the dangerous men.
A jealous mother-in-law came to that gallows next. She’d tried to wrest her son’s affection from his wife; she hit, strangled and tried to burn her rival. They kept her in a cell, where they hung a pretty cross at her request. That cross stayed there for many years afterwards, warding off some of the menace of harsh crime.
The last one to drop inside my walls was really a dangerous woman. Her case was much more famous than the last. She’d shot her lover five times outside the pub he drank in. An off duty copper was in the pub; he arrested her on the spot. At least one bullet from her Smith & Wesson was fired from point blank range and left the tell tale powder burns on his skin. Ruth Ellis stayed within my walls before her trial; I remember the fuss they made when they sent out for hair dye to let her dye her hair before her trial. Outside my gates protesters said hanging was wrong.
Changing times, changing times.
Only one more woman slept in my condemned cell, Frieda Rumbold, accused of murdering her husband. Saved from the gallows, she was given life instead.
So I’ll be slopped out for the last time soon, slopped out of crime and grime; slopped out of the women you hide behind my doors and waste their lives inside. The jackals hover outside waiting to develop me with their cranes and cement. They’ll clean the smell of crime and the stench of misery.
So you’ll forget you hid your dangerous women within my walls.